Recently I read a report from United Methodist Communications titled, “What Does It Mean to Be United Methodist?” This report summarizes the results of a survey conducted of 1250 United Methodists, including 400 lay members, 350 lay church leaders (i.e. past or present committee members), and 500 pastors. The respondents were asked in the spring and summer of 2014 to rate 22 values on a scale of 1 to 5, “not important” to “very important to you.” Not surprisingly, there are diverse opinions about what is important to us as individual United Methodists and there is no substantial agreement about core values. However, there are two values that consistently ranked near the top levels of importance across the spectrum of respondents: “Emphasis on God’s grace” and “Open table – Communion open to all.” That should not be surprising to us. If there are any values that distinguish United Methodists or Methodists in general from other Christian groups, it would be these two values.
When I read the report I recalled an experience I had ten years ago when I visited a worship service of a Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS). The LCMS teaches and practices “Close[d] Communion.” If I remember correctly, I visited the LCMS church as a homework assignment for a class at Northern Seminary, which was “Theology and Practice of Evangelism.” The nature of the assignment was to simply observe and record the differences in theology and practice of the visited church from my own local church and denomination of The United Methodist Church.
The pastor, in preparation for blessing the elements of Holy Communion, declared something like this, which is stated front and center on the homepage of Trinity Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas: “We welcome all of you to our celebration of Holy Communion this morning. Because of the sad divisions that exist in Christianity today, we cannot invite all of you to the Lord’s Table. Trinity practices closed communion, which means we commune active members of Trinity and those guests who have been invited to commune prior to the service. Otherwise, if you are a guest, please do not come forward to receive Communion.” And then the pastor reminded the assembly of their Sunday bulletin’s quotation of 1 Corinthians 11:27-29: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”
I sat in the pews while everyone else stood up and entered the line to receive the elements. It was a big church, and it took a long time for the people to participate in Holy Communion. Many thoughts went through my mind as I sat there in compliance … or was it defiance?
- What is everyone else thinking of me as I sit here?
- Don’t they know how “wrong” this appears to be to outsiders?
- How dare they act as gatekeepers to the grace of Jesus Christ?!
- Wow, I feel really good about being a Methodist!
I would like to share with you some voices from the LCMS because I think their example will provide a helpful counterpoint to us in understanding our own United Methodist teachings and practices. First, you should understand there is not universal agreement within the LCMS regarding the practice of closed communion. The opinions are various and have different nuances. To give you a taste of how important this issue is for the LCMS, here is one letter to the editor of the LCMS Reporter newspaper (June 2006) from Rev. Matthew Johnson, Minnesota, about this issue:
[C]losed Communion … is not only or even primarily concerned with treating individuals nicely. That can be done by greeters and servers at the local restaurant (where they are paid to do this). The church is not a restaurant, pastors are not hired hands, and Holy Communion is not a love meal that produces fellowship, but rather a fellowship meal (based on agreement in the Scriptural Gospel doctrine and all its articles) that produces love. Historically, the Missouri Synod has understood the Lord’s Supper as a fellowship meal to be given only to those individuals who are members of churches with which we are in doctrinal agreement. So, the Lord’s Supper is not only or even primarily about individuals, but rather about churches. The Lord’s Supper is the seal of (doctrinal) fellowship and the beginning, the root, and fount of love.
You may be wondering, “Why Close Communion?” Well, I’ll let the LCMS speak for themselves in a 1952 tract titled exactly that, Why Close Communion?:
So it is not that a Lutheran congregation wants to bar fellow saints from the blessings of the Eucharist when they practice Close Communion. It is not that they want to be separatistic, or set themselves up as judges of other men. The practice of Close Communion is prompted by love and is born of the heartfelt conviction, on the basis of Scripture alone, that we must follow Christ’s command. This means refusing the Lord’s Supper to those whose belief is not known to us. It is not showing love to allow a person to do something harmful, even though he may think it is for his own good. It also means if they are members of a Christian body which departs from the full truth of the Scripture in some of its doctrines, that we must not minimize the evil of this false teaching by opening our fellowship to any and all Christians who err in the faith.
Wow, I feel really good about being a Methodist!
I don’t think there’s a kind way to say this, but we United Methodists are those “members of a Christian body which departs from the full truth of the Scripture.” According to the tract and the LCMS church, which still uses the tract today, we believe and practice “false teaching,” which is “evil” and we “err in the faith.” How do those words make you feel? Do you feel loved? Does this kind of talk encourage you in your faith? Does it make sense? Most important, does closed communion as described in this way make sense in light of what you know to be the character of Jesus Christ who came for the salvation of the whole world? I wouldn’t worry too much about what the LCMS church thinks of us, though, because they used to teach and practice a lot of strange stuff not too long ago, such as:
- “It once was considered a sin to purchase life insurance.”
- “Membership in the Boy Scouts of America was not allowed.”
- “Lutherans were not allowed to dance and were even excommunicated for doing so.”
- “Lutheran pastors and people were not allowed to pray with anyone, anytime, anywhere, outside their own church.”
- “Women were not allowed to sit in church together with the men.”
- “Many congregations were in conflict over whether the pastor should continue to preach and teach in German or should begin to do so in English.”
I don’t think there’s a kind way to say this, but we United Methodists are those “members of a Christian body which departs from the full truth of the Scripture.”
“Emphasis on God’s grace” and “Open table – Communion open to all.”
So now that we have placed ourselves in a completely different context from our comfort zone, what do we United Methodists teach and practice? Let’s get back to Paul. I love Paul because he’s such a great writer but at best he’s an inconsistent systematic theologian.
You heard the fuller and immediate context of Paul’s words to the Corinthian church. Isn’t it clear that Paul was warning this specific Corinthian church to not participate in Holy Communion in an unorderly, unworthy manner? A manner where, in the words of Paul, “one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.” Isn’t it clear that Paul did not intend to formulate a radical theology of insiders and outsiders regarding the Lord’s Supper? In fact, we only need to stretch the immediate context a little bit further to 1 Corinthians 12 to read of Paul’s heart for the diversity of the church through the diversity of spiritual gifts and of seeking the “greater gifts,” what he called “a still more excellent way,” which leads into chapter 13, the so-called “love” chapter read at weddings. Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Yet Paul did use some strong language here in chapter 11, so what did he mean by “unworthy?” He meant two things, which he clearly stated. We can be “unworthy” in participating in Holy Communion by not examining ourselves and by failing to discern the body. Even if we find ourselves or are found by others to be “unworthy,” Paul said nothing about excluding the “unworthy” from the Table of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul made an elaborate argument for not living under such legalism: “For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
I recommend reading 1 Corinthians chapter 11 through 13 as one chunk. First, you will run into some culturally obscure stuff by contemporary Western standards, but then you will have a greater appreciation for Paul’s larger point he was making to the early Corinthian church that applies to us today in 1 Corinthians 12:27: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” In the United Methodist document titled This Holy Mystery about Holy Communion, the document says of 1 Corinthians 11 and Paul’s reference to being “unworthy,” “Within the United Methodist tradition, people who participate in the sacrament are assured of the forgiveness of their sins and of pardon through their participation in the Invitation and the Confession and Pardon. [And regarding “failing to discern the body”], Paul is speaking against those who fail to recognize the church—the body of Christ—as a community of faith within which Christians relate to each other in love.”
We’re sinners in need of God’s grace. That’s it.
For the LCMS and perhaps for the vast majority of Christendom that teaches and practices closed communion, Holy Communion, they would likely say, is about God’s grace … and some set of core unifying beliefs and doctrines. As broken humans we can’t help but add something to God’s grace, that’s in our very nature of being broken creatures, thinking there must be something we must do to make God’s grace apply to our lives, to make it real for the world, to make grace meaningful and respected as the gift of God. Even we United Methodists add to God’s grace, of course, because we have our own distinctive theology, but we try real hard to strip away as much as we possibly can to show God’s grace as freely given, unencumbered by doctrinal prerequisites, so people can experience God’s grace for themselves as directly as they can.
But what is God’s grace? This Holy Mystery says, “In accord with biblical and Christian teaching, we believe that we are sinners, constantly in need of divine grace. We believe that God is gracious and loving, always making available the grace we need. Grace is God’s love toward us, God’s free and undeserved gift.” Everything we teach and do here at PUMC should be about that simple message: we’re sinners in need of God’s grace. That’s it. Everything else is the process of our salvation and the ordering of our lives as local parts of the global body of Christ. This is the core Methodist understanding of Christian faith as handed down to us from the founder of our movement, John Wesley. This Holy Mystery goes on to explain:
While divine grace reaches us any time and in any way that God chooses, God has designated certain means or channels through which grace is most surely and immediately available. John Wesley expressed it this way: “By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men [and women], preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (“The Means of Grace,” II.1). In the General Rules, Wesley listed these means of grace as, “The public worship of God. The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded. The Supper of the Lord. Family and private prayer. Searching the Scriptures. Fasting or abstinence” (BOD, ¶103; page 74). Elsewhere Wesley added Christian conferencing, by which he meant edifying conversation and meeting together in groups for nurture and accountability. These means are not to be understood as ways of earning salvation, for that is an unmerited gift. They are, rather, ways to receive, live in, and grow in divine grace. The Wesleyan tradition has continued to emphasize the practice of these means of grace throughout our salvation process.
This evening begins our Vacation Bible School. I encourage you to think of VBS differently this year. I encourage you to think of it as V-“G”-S, Vacation “Grace” School. The Bible is important, but the Bible and absolute “doctrinal agreement” is never the focus of who we are as United Methodist Christians. The Bible is the word of God because it reveals Jesus Christ as the Word of God, as the center of humanity and history, and our beliefs and doctrines help us see clearly and live according to the example of Jesus Christ. His example is God’s grace, “God’s love toward us, God’s free and undeserved gift.” It’s so easy for us to get caught up in our differences and miss the reason for our faith, which is, in the words of Paul as he wrote to Titus, “[that] the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all … But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 2:11 & 3:4-7).